By: Johnathan Doucette
I’m not generally one for topical debates. My mind takes time to digest data: I’ll waffle for a bit, and then mostly agree with whatever is written on Jezebel. I mean the New York Times. (I mean Jezebel.)
Yesterday, however, marked a “historic” day for the same-sex marriage initiative, one made glaringly apparent upon opening my laptop earlier Tuesday morning.
My Facebook newsfeed demands I take a stance: between the rights-based, respectably liberal, pro-marriage, HRC propaganda that would have the legalization of same-sex marriage usher in Equality™ for all, and that of a radical queer agenda, one that recognizes marriage’s conservative, neoliberal, anti-feminist, capitalistic aims.
As a queer man generally leaning towards the latter category, I am troubled by the rhetoric employed by both camps. On the one hand, I do agree that marriage as an institution is, well, fucked. It has historically been used to subordinate women; it offers tangible benefits—economic or otherwise—to arbitrary forms of coupling; it reaffirms the state’s control to sanction “legitimate” forms of relationships, kinship, family, reproduction, and sexuality; and frankly, it limits humans’ potential for love in all its varying and complicated and wonderful forms. Take this quote from the Supreme Court today, the dreaded “slippery slope” argument that uses polyamory (inaccurately subsumed under “polygamy”) as the specter against which Gay People must fight:
“It was Justice Sotomayor who brought up the slippery slope argument about polygamy: ‘If marriage is a fundamental right, Mr. Olson [lawyer advocating for same-sex marriage], can we ever have legitimate restrictions on it?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Prop 8 is part marriage restriction, part status discrimination; it targets gays as a class. A restriction on polygamy would target conduct, not a class of persons traditionally discriminated against.’”
Cue the eye-roll. The aim of these debates is not, therefore, to create marriage open to “everyone,” rather to those “classes” moral enough to engage in monogamous, long-term, two-person, familial relationships.
Alternatively, I’m troubled by the ways in which many of my radical queer friends and allies demonize those “duped” enough into fighting for marriage equality. Personal attacks are thrown with abandon on many a’Facebook wall, the “how could you’s?!” lobbed on the comment section of one’s updated pro- or anti- marriage photo. I’m left feeling drained upon reading the growing chain of snarky comments between two close friends who happen to be divided on this particularly tense issue.
I do not mean to suggest that these debates are somehow “objective”: indeed, they are deeply personal, marred in complex histories of subjugation, abjection, oppression, longing, melancholy and hope. Questions of power must also be taken into account when interpreting reactions from both sides. In an increasingly neoliberal economy, media narratives of marriage equality, access to the military industrial complex, and other rights-based agendas mobilize diversity in easily digestible chunks. We’ve all seen images of white, wealthy gay men claiming that we’re “just like everyone else!” Often, queer imaginations of radical change are left by the way-side, disregarded as elitist, overly-idealistic, or derivative, missing the point of the larger issue at hand.
Anger, then, seems the only appropriate response. On the one hand, we should be angry as shit that same-sex couples are constitutionally barred from accessing services from the state; on the other, why not be bullshit that marriage equality will do little to address issues of economic insecurity, racism, poverty, homelessness, transphobia…
What, then, are we to do? Is marriage good or bad for queer peoples?
Perhaps that question misses the point. Indeed, many scholars and journalists have pointed to the futility of such a question. Instead, let us look at the institutional forces at play that place such a high premium on state-sanctioned relationships and the material benefits one receives as a result. I can already imagine ways in which marriage itself may be subversive (or even queer) that extend beyond same-sex unions. Why not use marriage to obtain a green card, strategically duping the state? Why not get married solely for the tax benefits, while looking for love outside the bonds of matrimony?
The world is fucking hard enough as it is. The pull towards normativity in all its forms is damn-near impossible to resist. We all seek personal validation based on our relationship with normative structures, whether feeling euphoria in accessing such privileges such as marriage or finding a sense of political purpose by rejecting such institutions flat-out. Demonizing individuals for attempting to live in a world where “choice” is largely dictated by social situation, however, seems not only cruel, but anti-queer. Institutionally, marriage will not be a gateway to equality or liberation. It may, however, make it easier for two people to get through a Wednesday morning. Let us rally together against a system that would do all it can to regulate our bodies and sexualities, and look upon one another with forgiveness and love. That sounds as radical an act as any.